Suir things – An Irishman’s Diary about Frederick Roberts and his famous Waterford family

Soldiers and painters

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts


When Frederick Roberts was a young man, his father didn’t want to hear of him pursuing a military career. Despite being a general himself, Roberts snr wrote: “If Freddy is clever, I hope he will not think of the army.” And as an exhibition opening in Waterford next week shows, Freddy was not short of options.

The family had already distinguished itself in two other professions beginning with the letter “A”. Georgian Waterford owed much of its appearance to an architect grandfather of the general, “Honest” John Roberts. And among John’s children was the artist Thomas Roberts, considered the finest Irish landscape painter of the 18th century, despite dying at 29. But not only did young Freddy think of the army, he thought of little else during a long life in which he earned most of the honours a British soldier of his era could. Mind you, his career might have ended early had the musket of an Indian mutineer in 1858 not jammed when fired at him.

Instead, it was the musketman who died, and Roberts who won a Victoria Cross for retrieving a standard from the soldier, and other acts of gallantry. He went on to distinguish himself in the Afghan and Boer Wars too, and climbed the ranks to be appointed first the head of the forces in Ireland and then commander in chief of the entire British army.

Along the way, he became revered as “Little Bobs” (he was five feet four). And among his many admirers was Rudyard Kipling, with whom in the early years of the 20th century he shared an obsession about the growing military threat of the Germans – or “the Hun”, as Kipling called them.

Indeed it was through Roberts’s influence, as mentioned here last week, that Kipling secured an officership for his short-sighted son John, who went on to fight and die with the Irish Guards.

It is to the same influence, used to contrastingly benign effect, that Dublin owes one of its more eccentric military graves. When his horse died at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 1899, Roberts decided it should have a burial place befitting an old four-legged soldier, who had accompanied him throughout the Afghan campaigns.

So he arranged for the stallion to be buried in the RHK’s walled garden, complete with a poem expressing hope that the pair would be reunited in heaven.

The grave is in the middle of the garden, where it could be seen from the master’s quarters (as army chief in Ireland, Roberts automatically became RHK master as well). And whether master and horse have since been reunited I don’t know but, ominously, the grave and headstone have been separated, during the renovations involved in the military hospital’s reinvention as Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Lord Roberts, as he was by then, lived to see the Irish Home Rule Bill passed, a prospect he regarded with horror. He was implicated in the Curragh Mutiny of 1914. Then the war he and Kipling had long warned of intervened. And so Roberts ended his life on familiar ground, donning army uniform yet again and, if not fighting for the empire, supporting the effort.

One of his last initiatives was to appeal to Irish public to lend their “field glasses” to officers at the front. In a thank you letter to this newspaper in October 1914, he announced that more than 14,000 pairs had been collected, with their owners’ names and addresses carefully indexed. The recipients, he added, had been asked “if possible, to return them after the war”.

A few weeks later, after visiting troops in France, the old soldier caught pneumonia and died. He is therefore officially included in the 58 Irish Guards from Waterford (via India in his case) who fell in the conflict, and who will be honoured at a related event in the city this weekend.

As for the exhibition, it features 300 years of the Roberts family – “architects, artists, and army men” – and opens at the Bishop’s Palace from Monday. But if you can’t get to Waterford for that, you could always consider an alternative show – “El Lissitzky: The Artist and the State” – which is ongoing at the aforementioned Irish Museum of Modern Art.

That one features the work of a Russian avant garde artist who supported the Bolshevik revolution with propaganda. It also considers the cultural activism of Irish nationalist figures of the revolutionary period, including Alice Milligan and Maud Gonne. And it runs at the old RHK until October 18th, accompanied by the faint backing noises of a former hospital master spinning in his grave.